MOOCs evolve

Would Abe have been a MOOC student? (Cover of a publication from the International Correspondence Schools, c. 1908).

Now that we are half a decade or so into the MOOC revolution it’s interesting to see it sort out and calm down a bit. Although it hasn’t quite fulfilled the utopian aspirations of the early evangelists, it has provided a useful means to get content to learners (particularly in tech areas).  While it’s unclear how the business models are doing (probably not all that well), people and institutions have benefited.

As somebody who is interested in curriculum, class structure, and the rhetorical forms that educational content take (why 13 weeks? why lectures? etc.), I was puzzled by the slavish effort of MOOCs to reproduce the highly artificial structure of an on-campus course. This seemed to me a clear example of the Marshall McLuhan adage that the first thing that happens with a new medium is that you use it to deliver an old form. (Radio shows were the first thing on TV.)

There still is an excessive amount of ‘course-ness’ to the average MOOC, but Dhawal Shah reports that the format is moving from scheduled semesters to basically on demand. A “Netflix” of education.

He writes, “MOOCs are gradually being transformed from virtual classrooms to a Netflix-like experience. Many courses are no longer offered just once or twice a year, but rather are now available as a self-paced, sign up whenever you want experience Coursera courses are now offered regularly throughout the year, with new sessions starting automatically on a bi-weekly or monthly basis.”

A very welcome development, not just because mapping academic calendar conventions on MOOCs was silly, but because opening up things on demand may lead to content innovation. It happened with Netflix, and helped usher in new blood, and arguably even new formats into fiction and non-fiction television.  Education could do worse…



One of the odder Central Casting Gigs: MOOC strategy, silly and serious

Pretending to be students of Clay Christensen in his MOOC audience!

From yesterday’s NYTimes on Harvard Biz School’s fraught embrace of MOOCs:

Professor Christensen did something “truly disruptive” in 2011, when he found himself in a room with a panoramic view of Boston Harbor. About to begin his lecture, he noticed something about the students before him. They were beautiful, he later recalled. Really beautiful.

“Oh, we’re not students,” one of them explained. “We’re models.”

Harvard Class Day, 1906. The visitors are strolling down North Harvard Street to enter the stadium. The B-School didn't even exist until 1908.
Harvard Class Day, 1906. The visitors are strolling down North Harvard Street to enter the stadium. The B-School didn’t even exist until 1908.

They were there to look as if they were learning: to appear slightly puzzled when Professor Christensen introduced a complex concept, to nod when he clarified it, or to look fascinated if he grew a tad boring. The cameras in the classroom — actually, a rented space downtown — would capture it all for the real audience: roughly 130,000 business students at the University of Phoenix, which hired Professor Christensen to deliver lectures online.

A minor bit in a fascinating piece: HBS is living out in real time the question of just what kind of innovation MOOCs embody? A Clay Christensen style disruption (something I heard him foretell in a commencement speech in 1999 at Marlboro College for their online MAT), or something that can be folded into a more incremental strategy (a la Michael Porter’s view of sticking to your core differentiation)?

A later bit in the piece describes what happens when your core differentiation gets dissolved: the “unbundling” potential of online ed (perhaps this era will be known as the “great unbundling of media.” Format, content, and platform are now all just a digital stew.)

“François Ortalo-Magné, dean of the University of Wisconsin’s business school, says fissures have already appeared. Recently, a rival school offered one of his faculty members not just a job, but also shares in an online learning start-up created especially for him. “We’re talking about millions of dollars,” Mr. Ortalo-Magné said. “My best teachers are going to find platforms so they can teach to the world for free. The market is finding a way to unbundle us. My job is to hold this platform together.”

Christensen’s bet? He, and many others like him, won’t be able to do it: Christensen’s on the record as saying, “half of the United States’ universities could face bankruptcy within 15 years.”



A scene that will seem antique to kids born today?

Criticizing MOOCs: the Cartoon

MOOCs, like many educational innovations that have come before them, are a flashpoint for certain kinds of rather tired arguments about the supposed eternal verities about what schooling should be. It’s a feeble flap, particularly since we are in not just early days but minute 1 or 2 of the whole change that online education will foment. The anti-MOOC case is also full of the weird mash up of empirical and conceptual carping that fights over education seem prone to. Two of the strands:

1. The philosophical opposition seems to go something like: MOOCs do not provide sufficient texture of experience to count as education, and are, further, an effort to outsource teaching via a technological approach, something which, for ineffable reasons, has to be, or is at least optimally, delivered in person as part of a (preferably, super-exclusionary) community.

2. The empirical complaint seems to be: look, they don’t work anyway, as most people don’t “complete” them, so therefore they can’t have any merit.

Both of these I think are refutable on their own, but they are basically self-refuting when mashed together. Good things those completion rates are low, even though that is arguably a meaningless metric, because, we shouldn’t be doing these things anyway.

I’m sanguine to optimistic about MOOCs and what they may lead to, and certainly feel deserve their chance to weave their thread in the Internet tapestry. My guess is that some of the growing pains result not from any problem in online delivery per se, but the sort of sad effort to replicate the format of a “course,” and the attendant forced march through the curriculum. (Curricula, whatever else they do, instantiate ideology and culture, something I’ll blather on about another time.)

Diderot's Encyclopedia: The MOOC of its day?
Diderot’s Encyclopedia: The MOOC of its day?
Getting a topic into some 13-week chunk for in-person delivery including the duly required mid-term, final, and term paper, is already artificial: an historical reenactment of an approach that was creaky 100 years ago. Preserving it online has never made any sense to me, except for laziness and resistance to change that academic institutions, and truthfully teachers, often fall into.

The other thing I think is not just promising about MOOCs, but here now and heartening, is how much humanities content they offer. In a time when there’s much stewing about the ailing state of the arts & humanities, there are crowds joining MOOCs on humanities topics and participating with enthusiasm. (Once upon a time you could get this subject on public broadcasting, even sometimes on commercial TV, but priorities have shifted.) Two, of many, examples: a course on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas with Jonathan Biss, and on Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, which is the closest I’ve found to busting open the idea of a course, it is really more of a community event, and the better for it.

Still, to give the opposition their say, here’s a delightful animation taking up the contra side (including an argument that it’s all about money that I’ll hang fire on until another day). Daphne, Sebastian, and Anant make such adorable video game characters, I think they should consider that as an add on career.

MOOC Chatter: Fast Company Interviews Thrun

Fast Company gets all hot and bothered about MOOCs and Sebastian Thrun’s (the movement’s Tim Berners-Lee) qualms and new directions. They hardly seem like news flashes:

As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students–1.6 million to date–he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.

“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Thrun tells me. “It was a painful moment.” Turns out he doesn’t even like the term MOOC.

The crux of the piece (full of rather yucky lifestyle writing, proving that the Fast Company editors are every bit as indulgent to their wards as The New Yorker ones) seems to be the less than shocking news that Udacity is focusing on workforce training and the business customer. (Is there MOOC provider out there that isn’t thinking seriously about this market?)  Still it’s worth a browse.

Technology in Education, the prequel.
A film! Educational technology as it once was in a Boston Latin Classroom of the 40s. (Courtesy of BPL’s great flickr stream).

MOOC Words: Philosophers Respond

A philosophy blog I read, Leiter Reports, has an interesting thread on MOOCs and their discontents. Rebecca Kukla, a Georgetown Prof, and guest blogger, opened the topic as she is doing a MOOC at her institution.

Many familiar issues from other reporting and commentary on MOOCS: IP and editorial control/ownership, equity, future of f2f, pedagogical concerns,, but exceptionally well expressed. One of the comments mentions David Gelerntner predicting a lot of this in 1984–a claim I need to research. Anand Vaidya, among the profs who objected to the distribution of the Michael Sandel Justice course via Harvardx, weighs in too.

The thread is here

Some interesting bits:

Kukla’s prompt:

In short, I think that when it comes to MOOCs we need to be having hard conversations about intellectual property, ownership of the means of production, privacy, and other complicated issues in applied ethics. And I am sure there are other hard conversations to be had as well. Mostly, my sense is that our technological capacity here is outpacing our capacity to establish thoughtful practical norms and ethical constraints on the use of this technology. Thoughts?

Part of Vaidya’s post

One point of our letter (whether or not it was clear) is that faculty with the relevant expertise in an area should have the right to be involved in the conversation and decision over whether using a MOOC at their institution for the purposes of educating the students at their university is in fact a good thing. We were not consulted in an advisory capacity over whether Justice should be taught through a MOOC, nor were we asked to make one as a way of improving education. We are against the idea that university administrators should have the power to override faculty expertise and consultation in determining course content for students. Faculty are charged with the task of debating and deciding what is best for the student population…

One thing that occurs to me is that somehow MOOCS have become a sort of “fetish object” for a range of disparate issues in education, and maybe even society at large. They are interesting in themselves, I admit, but the intensity and volume of discussion seems to me wildly disproportionate. They are vessel into which a bunch of worries, about ethics, the purpose of higher education, ownership, control, access, technology can be poured, most avidly by those who haven’t ever taken or taught an online course and have no intention of ever doing so. I’m guessing Stanley Fish falls into that category, and he added his bleating, amusing if garbled, to the fray in a NYTimes op-ed a few days back.

He closes by railing generally against social media courtesy of a bad 90s film:

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 5.56.47 PM

“See how isolating and empty modern life has become is the acidly comic message of the director [of Denise Calls Up]. Isn’t that great and can we please have more of it is the messianic message of Daphne Koller. O brave new world.”

I guess he won’t be accepting my FB effort to friend him any time soon. 😦

Arts and Technology: Reasonable Words?

Various inbox bits of late have two interests of mine overlapping. In no particular order and with only scant kibbitzing from me (more to come, no doubt):

1. Ludwig von MOOC

Coursera has teamed up with pianist Jonathan Biss to give a MOOC course  on the big 32!

Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 12.30.37 PM

Interesting to see if these kinds of “monuments of music” courses will work online. (Some music profs I know don’t like teaching them, as they create a kind of audience problem around prerequisites, the most obvious being can you read music or not and are you a pianist?) But the blurb invites everybody, and the musicians among the crowd can read Charles Rosen’s books and have their own section. Whether anybody could shed more light than Rosen is a question, but that’s a question that would dog an in-person class. I wonder if Biss will perform live as part of the MOOC? Could be quite thrilling if so. He’s a wonderful pianist.

2. Britten the iPad App

Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” (fetchingly featured in a recent Wes Anderson movie) has its own iPad app. Free, and nice design. Haven’t played with it yet.

Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

3. BBC Tweets the Proms

Unless you’re in London, you can’t attend PROMS concerts in person (and you can’t watch them here in the U.S, at least not officially). But in addition to taking in the feast that is the world’s largest classical music festival via the BBC Radio 3 Web site, you can join the 25K twitter followers for the feed.  A nice path through the riches, wherein you can find things like the “Doctor Who Prom.” (5 days to listen left.) Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 12.51.14 PM

MOOC’s or MOOA’s

Reluctant as I am to give The Manhattan Institute any traffic, Benjamin Ginsberg‘s take on what academe really needs is pretty funny, and it’s not more courses:

As colleges begin using massive open online courses (MOOC) to reduce faculty costs, a Johns Hopkins University professor has announced plans for MOOA (massive open online administrations). Dr. Benjamin Ginsberg, author of The Fall of the Faculty, says that many colleges and universities face the same administrative issues every day. By having one experienced group of administrators make decisions for hundreds of campuses simultaneously, MOOA would help address these problems expeditiously and economically. Since MOOA would allow colleges to dispense with most of their own administrators, it would generate substantial cost savings in higher education.

Tipped by Leiter Reports.

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 9.26.59 PM
Could MOOA’s do any better at the all important task of gratifying universities’ edifice complexes. From PhD comics, and he’s way too easy on Gothic Envyist, a baleful architectural trend still with us.

Reasonable Words: MOOCs

Much of the energy around MOOCs has been focused on access to science and technical courses from elite institutions. I’ve been intrigued about how this revolution will affect the humanities, which so often seem associated with the seminar room and coffee house, small groups of intense young people (goatees and gitanes optional but strongly recommended) getting at just how wrong Kant really was about geometry and whether Allan Bloom should be ostracized. (Guess it shows that I went to college in the 80s, huh?)

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Quaint, but probably no wireless. Kenyon College as it once was.

The LA Review of Books has a panel discussion about MOOCs with engrossing takes by three profs, with observations, pros and cons. Here is a bit I liked from Ray Schroeder, whose college experience, like mine, was on a tree-lined campus, with a beautifully undigital library, and Shakespeare read aloud and listened to under oak trees. But things have changed…

Over the past decade, I have taught only online. Students in my classes are far-flung — two from Alaska this term among the others from the lower 48. In the past, I have had students from assorted countries; they bring a diversity, a richness of perspectives to classes that I never experienced previously. I taught eduMOOC in the summer of 2011; we had students in 70 countries. Engagement and interaction came through “meet-ups,” such as the group in Christchurch New Zealand who met weekly at the McDonalds (free wi-fi, don’t you know) to engage and discuss the future of learning. Brazilians tolerated our English language panel discussions and then met in their Portuguese language wikis. Still others engaged in Google Hangouts. The social constructivist principles of what scholars of education call the “community of inquiry” thrive online through teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence. Those are the very same principles that led to the success of the liberal arts college experience decades ago.

Other views as well, though. Ian Bogost is not so sanguine.

MOOCs are a kind of entertainment media. We are living in an age of para-educationalism: TED Talks, “big idea” books, and the professional lecture circuit have reconfigured the place of ideas (of a certain kind) in the media mainstream. Flattery, attention, the appeal of celebrity, the aspiration to become a member of a certain community, and other triumphs of personality have become the currency of thinking, even as anti-intellectualism remains ascendant. MOOCs buttress this situation, one in which the professor is meant to become an entertainer more than an educator or a researcher. The fact that MOOC proponents have even toyed with the idea of hiring actors to present video lectures only underscores the degree to which MOOCs aspire to reinvent education as entertainment.

The whole roundtable is worth reading, if you’ve been following this world.

Reasonable Words: SJSU says no to Michael Sandel’s edX Justice Course

The beginning of some bits and bobs from recent reading:

The Case Against MOOC’s to teach a social justice course, eloquently put by the the Philosophy faculty at San José State University explaining why they won’t be using Michael Sandel’s edX course.

One excerpt:

There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves, nor do we
have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course. We believe that
long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online
courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours. Unfortunately, the move to
MOOCs comes at great peril to our university. We regard such courses as a serious
compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case
of social injustice.

From The Chronicle of Higher Ed, article at And tipped by Brian Leiter’s great blog.

I haven’t made my mind up about MOOCs, beyond being bummed by the fact that instead of some new, innovative curriculum and structure, they seem to be embodying Marshall McLuhan’s point that the first thing we do with a new medium is put up content from a previous format. (Vaudeville on Radio, Radio on TV). College curriculum and structure reflects educational ideas and political, social norms of a century ago. (We go to school Sept-June not because there is anything intrinsically sacred about it, but because our once agrarian nation needed farm labor in the summer. We have lectures, in part, because when books were rare and expensive, it was a reasonably efficient use of the medium of print to read books to a large group. Now we can, as the letter suggests, read them ourselves.)

What I hadn’t seen was MOOCs as basically an automation solution to the crisis of funding in higher ed. Once upon a time professors taught you, then grad students and adjuncts filled this role, and MOOCs give a computer this task, with “pedagogical mechanical turks” that grade things. The SJSU letter’s concern about financing brings up such thoughts, and they are right in my view for fighting to teach courses they have staff to teach. But what about the case when the course is already gone and the MOOC becomes the option faute de mieux, for lack of anything else? As Sandel might say himself, what’s the right thing to do? I suppose you could check one of his books out of a public library.

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MOOCs before there were MOOCs…the reading room at New York Public Library. Freely available, and there’s a local “franchise” in your town.

MOOCs: Madness of Crowds or Unmet Need?

An interesting take on MOOCs from the Chronicle last December that I’m just catching up with.

For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?
‘Disruptions’ have the buzz but may put higher education out of reach for those students likely to benefit the most.

A few choice bits:

A ‘Mass Psychosis’

Higher education does have real problems, and MOOC’s, badges—certificates of accomplishment—and other innovations have real potential to tackle some of them. They could enrich teaching, add rigor, encourage interdisciplinarity, reinforce education’s real-world applicability, and make learning more efficient—advances all sorely needed.

But the reinvention conversation has not produced the panacea that people seem to yearn for. “The whole MOOC thing is mass psychosis,” a case of people “just throwing spaghetti against the wall” to see what sticks, says Peter J. Stokes, executive director for postsecondary innovation at Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies. His job is to study the effectiveness of ideas that are emerging or already in practice.

He believes that many of the new ideas, including MOOC’s, could bring improvements to higher education. But “innovation is not about gadgets,” says Mr. Stokes. “It’s not about eureka moments. … It’s about continuous evaluation.”

Even more trenchantly from the president of Trinity College in DC who suggests a “follow the money” line of inquiry.

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When does the MOOC bubble burst? Is there a Coursera Stats course I need to take to find out?


“The idea that they can have better education and more access at lower cost through massive online courses is just preposterous,” says Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. Seventy percent of her students are eligible for Pell Grants, and 50 percent come from the broken District of Columbia school system. Her task has been trying to figure out how to serve those students at a college with the university’s meager $11-million endowment.

Getting them to and through college takes advisers, counselors, and learning-disability experts—a fact Ms. McGuire has tried to convey to foundations, policy makers, and the public. But the reinvention conversation has had a “tech guy” fixation on mere content delivery, she says. “It reveals a lack of understanding of what it takes to make the student actually learn the content and do something with it.”

Amid the talk of disruptive innovation, “the real disruption is the changing demographics of this country,” Trinity’s president says. Waves of minority students, especially Hispanics, are arriving on campus, many at those lower-tier colleges, having come from schools that didn’t prepare them for college work. “The real problem here is that higher education has to repeat a whole lot of lower education,” Ms. McGuire says. “That has been drag on everyone.”

Much of the hype around reinvention bypasses her day-to-day challenges as a president. “All of the talk about how higher education is broken is a superficial scrim over the question, What are the problems we are trying to solve?” she says. The reinvention crowd has motivations aside from solving higher education’s problems, she suspects: “Beware Chicken Little, because Chicken Little has a vested interest in this. There is an awful lot of hype about disruption and the need for reinvention that is being fomented by people who are going to make out like bandits on it.”

Overall, the Chronicle piece is a little muddled, befitting the topic. How do you describe a bubble from the inside anyway? It looks beautiful and shiny, and then it pops.

Of course, I’ve got MOOC musings of my own, but will save them for another day.

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